‘Gimme Shelter’ with Daniel Gehman: Kotkin and Duany and Brooks . . . Oh My!

Well, if you will pardon the cheesy intro, allow me to relay my feelings following a day-long seminar featuring each of these engaging speakers, in addition to Joel Bess, Eric Jacobsen and the extremely articulate Roberta Ahmanson. Holy cow! Seriously, it was a lot for one person to absorb. I

Well, if you will pardon the cheesy intro, allow me to relay my feelings following a day-long seminar featuring each of these engaging speakers, in addition to Joel Bess, Eric Jacobsen and the extremely articulate Roberta Ahmanson. Holy cow! Seriously, it was a lot for one person to absorb. I can’t recall the last time any industry-related daylong seminar was so intellectually stimulating. What is my measure of “intellectually stimulating,” you may ask. To hear Alexis de Tocqueville quoted three times before lunch is a pretty good yardstick for me.

The conference at which all this great learning plus reasoning poured forth was the Restoring Community Conference in Anaheim, which was sponsored by the City of Anaheim together with the Building Industry Association of Orange County. At the core of the gathering was the question, “What is the role of Sacred Space in restoring community?”

Naturally, that conjures all sorts of related questions, like “What is ‘sacred space’?” or, even more to the point, “What is community?” I assure you that the attendees of this conference heard it from every angle.

The essence of the answer, though, was summed up eloquently by Andres Duany, who remarked that in his experience, in addition to the conference being “weird” (due to its emphasis on the spiritual realm), it was the first gathering of planners in his recent experience in which PEOPLE were at the core, rather than, say, the environment or the government. Sure, there were discussions of public space, and the role of religious institutions in forming it, but the corollary themes developed throughout the course of the day, including “The Importance of Beauty in Restoring Community,” were almost singularly focused on the needs of the individual: for connecting, for fellowship, for finding meaning in the course of everyday life.

Frankly, it was astonishing. Kotkin emphasized the critical American distinctive that we still value families, and that as a consequence, our population is growing, in contrast to the populations of most European countries. Families, as he noted, generally need a little more space than their urban counterparts—so they head for the suburbs. There is nothing ignoble about this. Yet, as generations post baby-boom raise their children, they long for some of the cultural niceties the city offers—walkable nodes of culture and entertainment. Therefore, new “village centers” are springing up in the suburbs to provide that for them.

Mr. Duany, a picture of elegance and wit, delivered the most quotable line of the day: “The attempt to make everything excellent will make everything mediocre.” Translation: “Open your eyes and look around: not every street can be excellent. There must still be places of service and mess. Don’t kid yourself or aim unnecessarily high.” At the same time, Duany’s work emphasizes the point that just about every type of community in our culture can accept greater density without residual sacrifice—from inner ring shopping malls to ex-urban 1-acre lot subdivisions (where local food might be grown and harvested on all that excess acreage.)

Appropriately, David Brooks wrapped up the day with his wry observations on ‘This American Life.’ In his lecture, he touched on themes from his new book, On Paradise Drive, which, is a bit all over the map, but ends with this very uplifting idea: Americans, in their thoughts, dreams and aspirations, are firmly grounded in the future—always have been, and always will be. This is a prescription for hope: all of us are anticipating a brighter future, and occasionally stumble over one another in our quest to bring it to fruition.

‘Ordinary’ people are not the enemy; they are us. At the end of the day, it’s a big tent we inhabit. There will be room for city hipsters, suburban families, ex-urban retirees and every imaginable shade of household in between. And they will all need to be housed and served, in ways that satisfy their longings, while taking pains to create “sustainable” communities. The future is a wonderful place, and the fact that we can all have a part in bringing it to be while seeking the details that enrich the lives of all kinds of people and while shaping the environment for those who will follow us generations from now, is a strange and wonderful experience.

Welcome to the future.


Hiding in Plain Sight

OK, this post is a little off-topic, but I had to write about it. My wife and I live in a sort of suburban neighborhood, about 45 years old. The density is about 4 DU per acre and the homes are largely semi-custom. We’ve been here almost 14 years—long enough to see a few folks come and go.

For the first ten years or so, the neighbors across our back fence (110 feet) were a quiet, mature Chinese-American couple. I know they did a lot to spruce up their house before selling it about 3 years ago for nearly $900,000. We understood the buyers to be an off-site owner who purchased the property for two mature family members, one of whom was disabled. Well enough, we thought.

Three years passed without incident. The gentlemen (as we supposed) who lived in the house were beyond quiet—they were essentially invisible. I guess this should have aroused our suspicion, but hindsight is always 20/20, as they say.

Last November, I was on my way home from a celebratory excursion to a local theme park when my wife called me, distressed. Several police officers had gathered around the house next door, and there was considerable shouting and brandishing of weapons, followed by gunshots and eerie silence.

I skated by the house soon after—and the evidence of the shooting was spattered across the front porch. Gross. But, after that evening’s incident, there was only a brief flurry of activity with folks moving stuff out of the house, and then nothing, for months.

Recently as I was sitting on my back porch, a voice called through the crack in the fence, “Um, excuse me, sir?” We knew the house had been put up for sale. Obviously, this was a realtor. “Can you tell me anything about what happened at this house?”

“Hang on,” I said, “I’ll come over.”

I went next door and explained the history to the best of my ability. The realtor asked me, “Have you seen the inside of the house?” I hadn’t, except for the time that the Chinese couple had moved out. I was now overwhelmingly curious. “Can I take a look inside?”

There was no way I could have been prepared for what I saw next. When our original neighbors had moved out, we toured the house, and appreciated the improvements they had made, including the kitchen and the new laminate flooring. What I saw when I walked into the house almost defies description—it reminded me of the killer’s house in “Silence of the Lambs,” or maybe even the disgusting domicile from the “incestuous mutant” episode of “The X Files.” Honestly, it was beyond repulsive. A nice, modestly improved suburban house had been butchered into a rabbit warren of tiny, darkened rooms with mysterious passages between them. Trash and debris were strewn everywhere, making it difficult to even walk through. The ceilings were wired to support a grid of grow lights, together with an elaborate sprinkling system. In case you haven’t guessed it by now, my NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOR’S house had been transformed into a sophisticated pot farming operation, all while we slept peacefully next door. Only the kitchen, one bedroom, and one bathroom had been reserved for their original function. I’m still slightly in shock—especially over the bathroom area where one of the residents had obviously endured his final bleed-out.

So now the drug business is gone, even though the growing pots and lights remain in one of the rooms. The nice young couple looking at the house, oddly, did not seem egregiously deterred by its condition, or b
y my story. And that’s just a little freaky.

I hope there’s a buyer soon. But I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t pay more than maybe $250K for this property (if I had the money—or the stomach to put it all back together.) My wife and I still look at each other and shake our heads. How could this have been going on so close to us without us having the slightest clue? Was the cover story that good?

I guess I don’t fault myself for not being more involved. On the other hand, I don’t expect I won’t get to know the next owners, whoever they are. Once bitten, twice shy.

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects)